At last, the much delayed conclusion to my Italian pilgrimage blogging, in two parts (final installment tomorrow).
We began the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul at Saint Peter’s Basilica; fittingly, we ended it with a visit to the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls. In fact, Peter and Paul met us again and again in Rome, much as Saint Francis had met us everywhere in Assisi.
What’s more, the two apostles were nearly always together in Rome. They stand side by side in Saint Peter’s Square directly in front of the basilica: on the left, the much-photographed statue of Peter holding the golden keys with upraised hand and index finger extended; on the right, an equally majestic but less-noticed statue of Paul with his familiar sword. Likewise in St. Paul’s Outside the Walls, the front of the nave is dominated by two massive statues, Peter on the left, Paul on the right.
On Wednesday, the day after the feast day, we had Mass at the Basilica of Saint John Lateran, where relics from both Peter’s and Paul’s heads—skull bones—are kept inside statues in the canopy high over the altar. (This doesn’t bother me at all the way the mummified head of Catherine of Siena did. Skull bone relics secreted in a statue over an altar are one thing; cutting through neck tissue in order to display a saint’s head far from her tomb is something else.)
Even on Thursday, our last day in Rome, having Mass at North American College, we ran into Peter and Paul in a large icon depicting the saints embracing and kissing—an image often adopted in connection with Catholic-Orthodox dialogue.
In comparison to the awesome Pallium Mass at St. Peter’s, our low-key visit later that day to St. Paul’s Outside the Walls might be thought anticlimactic. For some reason, though, it doesn’t seem to work that way. We are on pilgrimage, and the spiritual experience is cumulative, not comparative or reductive. A simple visit to a church, especially a beautiful and important church, has a certain absolute value that is not diminished by extraordinary occasions in even more magnificent or important churches.
It might be true that after the perfection of, say, Michelangelo’s Pietà, I might find another pietà wanting. If that’s the case, though, it’s the art student in me responding more than the devout Catholic. A church is different. Wherever you go, a church expresses and serves the same sacred mystery. The same Holy Trinity is exalted, the same incarnate Lord adored, the same gospel proclaimed, the same Eucharistic Sacrifice offered, the same communion of the saints betokened by the relics of whatever saints are present.
Last year, after I returned from my first visit to Rome, an atheist friend said to me (with, I thought, touching cross-worldview empathy) that he hoped the experience of St. Peter’s and the other great papal basilicas hadn’t somehow diminished my weekly experience at my own church. Now, my home church of St. John’s in Orange, New Jersey is a gem, and would be at home in any town in Europe—but the salient fact is that I love it more, not less, after my experience of some other great church, whether it be St. Pat’s in New York or (even better) Sacred Heart Cathedral in Newark, or the greatest churches of Europe.
That’s not to say that what a church looks like makes no difference. Modernist worship spaces may fulfill all of the functions mentioned above, but it can be hard to feel it the same way. In particular, modernist renovations to beautiful old churches are an abomination that I find hard to bear. In the absence of some actual impediment, though, whatever beauty a church has to offer can be received in token of the one faith confessed in all. (And in the end even my objections to modernist ugliness go only so deep. When Bishop Karol Wojtyla (later Pope John Paul II) succeeded, against determined Soviet opposition, in getting a church built at Nova Huta, the “city without God,” it was a perfect spaceship of an edifice, but it was still a spiritual triumph.)
Anyway, St. Paul’s Outside the Walls is magnificent. I especially love the great golden mosaic in the apse depicting Christ with Peter and Paul as well as Andrew and Luke (why Andrew and Luke?), and the fifth-century mosaics on the triumphal arch that are about all that remains of the original basilica before the 1823 fire that destroyed nearly everything. Of course we pray at St. Paul’s tomb, just as we will pray at the tomb of Peter on Thursday.
Wednesday morning it’s another rush to St. Peter’s Square, this time for the pope’s general audience. Once again it’s a long line and a lot of waiting around, but we manage to get the coveted aisle seats, quite close to the front. Then it’s a long wait in our seats in the blazing sun till the pope’s arrival at 10:30. Thank God someone advised us to bring an umbrella. It’s a pretty grueling experience for Sarah, who’s quite heat sensitive, but we survive thanks to that umbrella. (Sarah also benefits from a unique cooling scarf given to her by another pilgrim on our journey—a very helpful gift that she continues to use.)
The Holy Father arrives in an open popemobile—here I am seeing him two days in a row!—which cruises all around the crowd and finally comes right up the center aisle. After my less-than-satisfactory experiences in papal photography at the Pallium Mass, I decide to use my iPhone’s video camera. When the moment comes, even though we’re right on the aisle, I discover that a couple of young women have somehow inserted themselves between us and the side barrier. Writing about the Pallium Mass, where I lost my proximity to the aisle during the recessional through an unfortunate incident, I said that shoving wasn’t my style. Now I learn that I’m quite willing to shove for my daughter, if not for myself. Sarah gets a perfect aisle view of Benedict rolling up the center aisle, and I get as nice an iPhone video as you could wish (you can hear me saying “These are our seats” at the beginning).
The address is in Italian. I gather that Pope Benedict is talking about priests, possibly the year for priests; I catch references to Francis of Assisi, Charles Borromeo, and one of my favorite saints, Francis de Sales. Later I’m able to read his address online in English.
After the address, the various groups of pilgrims are announced in their own languages, and the pope waves in greeting to each group as they’re introduced, usually amid cheers from the group, and language by language the pope briefly extends greetings to all. Two or three times times, some group of pilgrims responds when mentioned by leaping up and serenading Benedict with a brief choral excerpt of some sacred work, such as Cantate Domino. Music lover that he is, I’m sure Benedict appreciates this. When John Myers of Newark is announced, I stand up and cheer — practically alone (I don’t know where the rest of our group is, but they’re nowhere near us). Pope Benedict waves in response … pretty much waving to me.
In the end, of course, comes the blessing of devotional objects, and so the rosary I pray every day gets a papal blessing, along with a bunch of San Damiano crucifixes purchased in Assisi for family members back home, among other things. (I’m also packing a bag full of nearly 20 rosaries as a favor to another pilgrim who preferred not to brave the morning sun. She tells me they’re for a contingent of little old ladies back in New Jersey who will repay me for the favor by remembering my family in their prayers. Good deal for me.) I also get very good still photos of Benedict driving away in the popemobile.
After the audience, Sarah and I redress our overheated state in an air-conditioned pizzeria, where we wash down pizza with enormous bottles of water and polish off double helpings of gelato. (Gelato actually plays a major and daily role in our Italian experience, though this is the only time it ties into our sacred itinerary directly enough to warrant mentioning here. Well, okay, there was also Thursday, when we both ordered vanilla and lemon, and when they arrived Sarah said, “Yellow and white, just like the pope’s flag!” Papal gelato on our last day in Rome.)